Perceived Therapeutic Qualities of Counselor Trainees with Disabilities

Article excerpt

A counselor's influence may depend in part on technical skill and in part on the perceptions of the client. Clients who perceive their counselors as possessing the therapeutic qualities of expertness, attractiveness and trustworthiness may be less likely to devalue the counselor's intervention and to experience therapeutic change. This study examined whether experimental manipulations of a counselor trainee's disability status would influence participants' perceptions of the counselor's therapeutic qualities. Neither the presence of a learning disability nor a physical disability negatively influenced perceptions. Results are discussed in terms of prior research and theory.

Social influence theory may explain some aspects of the counseling process (Goldstein & Simonson, 1971; Strong, 1968). For example, characteristics of the counselor, the client, the influential message, and the environment contribute to the strength of influence (Lippa, 1994). Thus, the influence of counselors may depend not only on the therapeutic message itself, but on the clients' interpersonal perceptions. In particular, counselors perceived as being expert, attractive and trustworthy may be more influential with clients than those perceived as not having these qualities (Beutler, Machando & Neufeldt, 1994).

Applying cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) to the counseling relationship, Strong (1968) hypothesized that a counselor's influence on a client is the product of cognitive dissonance created by the counselor's message. The client can reduce dissonance through personal change (effective influence), devaluation of the counselor, devaluation of the message, or information seeking. In counseling, a personal change in the client is less likely when alternative means of dissonance reduction are available (Strong, 1968). Specifically, counselors perceived as less expert, attractive, and trustworthy may be less influential inasmuch as clients may be prepared to devalue them and their message. Research has supported Strong's hypothesis regarding influence and therapeutic outcomes (Strong & Dixon, 1971; LaCrosse, 1980).

While accurate conceptualizations and effective techniques can contribute to positive perceptions (Morran, Kurpius, Brack, & Rozecki, 1994), the personal attributes of the counselor may also affect client perceptions of therapeutic qualities. For example, counselors of minority ethnic background tend to be perceived more positively (Green, Cunningham & Yanico, 1986; Helms & Rode, 1982). The current study will examine participants' perceptions of a counselor whose disability status, a personal attribute that may influence perceptions, is experimentally manipulated.

Some research suggests that, when reviewing applications, employers may perceive persons with disabilities more negatively than those without disabilities (Ravaud, Madiot, & Ville, 1992). Mitchell and Fredreckson (1975), however, contend that persons with disabilities may be perceived to have an enhanced empathic ability and may therefore be preferred counselors. Similarly, Miller (1991) found that the presence of a physical disability led to more positive perceptions of the counselor. Still, a recent review of the literature (Strohmer, Leierer, Cochran & Arokiassamy, 1996) indicates that physical disabilities, as a broad class, bear little if any relationship to key perceptions of therapeutic qualities. Strohmer et al. (1996) note that most extant research has not addressed specific types of disabilities; learning disabilities, for example, have yet to be studied.

A learning disability (LD) is present when the person's achievement in a specific academic area is significantly below the level expected for age, schooling, and level of intelligence (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). In general, individuals with learning disabilities tend to be viewed less positively than individuals without learning disabilities (Haager & Vaughn, 1995). …